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Tomgram: Nick Turse, American War Versus Real War

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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One striking aspect of the Vietnam years -- and the antiwar movement of that era -- was the degree to which you could see images of Vietnamese civilian suffering here in the United States. Among the iconic images of that war, for instance, was Nick Ut's photo of a young girl, burned by napalm from an air strike, running down a road screaming. And among war images, it was by no means alone. There were, of course, the horrific shots Army photographer Ron Haeberle took of what became known as the My Lai massacre as it was happening. After a long and tortuous journey, those photos finally appeared as a ten-page centerfold-from-hell in LIFE magazine (even if an African antelope was on its cover). Along with the piles of bodies of slaughtered women, children, and old men, the "eyewitness" text was little short of startling: "One body, an old man, had a "C' carved on his chest"; "A GI grabbed the girl and with the help of others started stripping her... "VC boom-boom,' another said, telling the 13-year-old that she was a prostitute for the Vietcong," and so on.

I wouldn't want to exaggerate the degree of American compassion for the suffering of Vietnamese civilians, but it existed, along with those images. And because, at least in the precincts of the antiwar movement, such imagery was regularly before American eyes -- some eyes anyway -- and on minds, the suffering and destruction our soldiers were bringing to ordinary civilians in a distant, disastrous war was far clearer then.

Strangely enough, though, in the American screen war that followed the real war by some years, Vietnamese suffering largely disappeared. Left screen center was usually the American platoon, a kind of "lost patrol" in an alien land, part of what, even during the war, was regularly referred to as an American -- but not a Vietnamese -- "tragedy." From Oliver Stone's Platoon and Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket to Robert Zemeckis's Forrest Gump, Vietnamese suffering became, at best, a distant backdrop for American suffering, and the war's conflicts essentially took place among Americans within that platoon. (A rare exception was Good Morning, Vietnam, but you would never again, in all those post-war years, see a scene like the first one in Peter Davis's Oscar-winning 1974 documentary Hearts and Minds, which opens on a Vietnamese village, quiet and peaceful, before you notice the silhouettes of soldiers entering -- intruding on an emerald green land, really -- from the edge of the screen.)

Even more strangely, as Nick Turse points out in his discussion of Sebastian Junger's new film Restrepo, our Afghan War is now generally being recorded in real time in the fashion made familiar to Americans on screen in the post-Vietnam years -- that is, largely without Afghan suffering. Not surprisingly, Americans now pay remarkably little attention to the civilians whose lives have been destroyed in our invasions and prolonged occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Turse, who won a Ridenhour Prize for Reportorial Distinction for his Nation magazine piece, "A My Lai a Month," on suppressed information about a series of mass killings by U.S. forces in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, has never reported from a war zone. But over these last years, he's traveled much of Vietnam, and more recently Cambodia, interviewing those (especially Vietnamese and Cambodian civilians) who were under fire. Tom

Death on Your Doorstep
What Sebastian Junger and
Restrepo Won't Tell You About War
By Nick Turse

I've never heard a shot fired in anger. But I might know a little bit more about war than Sebastian Junger.

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Previously best known as the author of The Perfect Storm, Junger, a New York-based reporter who has covered African wars and the Kosovo killing fields, and Tim Hetherington, an acclaimed film-maker and photographer with extensive experience in conflict zones, heard many such shots, fired by Americans and Afghans, as they made their new documentary film Restrepo -- about an isolated combat outpost named after a beloved medic killed in a firefight. There, they chronicled the lives of U.S. soldiers from Battle Company, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, during a tour of duty in eastern Afghanistan's Korengal Valley.

The film has been almost universally praised by mainstream reviewers and was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. A New York Times "critics' pick," Restrepo moved the newspaper's A.O. Scott to end his glowing review by telling readers: "As the war in Afghanistan returns to the front pages and the national debate, we owe the men in "Restrepo,' at the very least, 90 minutes or so of our attention." In the Los Angeles Times, reviewer Betsy Sharkey concluded in similar fashion: "What "Restrepo' does so dramatically, so convincingly, is make the abstract concrete, giving the soldiers on the front lines faces and voices."

Along with Hetherington, Junger, who has also recently experienced great success with his companion book War, shot about 150 hours of footage in the Korengal Valley in 2007 and 2008 during a combined 10 trips to the country. "This is war, full stop," reads website prose above their directors' statement about the film.

It isn't.

Junger and Hetherington may know something about Afghanistan, a good deal about combat, and even more about modern American troops, but there's precious little evidence in Restrepo that -- despite the title of Junger's book -- they know the true face of war.

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War on Your Doorstep

Earlier this year, Junger reviewed a new Vietnam War novel, veteran Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn, for the New York Times Book Review. In a glowing front-page appraisal, he wrote, "Combat is not really what "Matterhorn' is about; it is about war. And in Marlantes's hands, war is a confusing and rich world where some men die heroically, others die because of bureaucratic stupidity, and a few are deliberately killed by platoon-mates bearing a grudge." Analyzing Junger's misreading of Matterhorn helps to unlock his misconceptions about war and explains the problems that dog his otherwise cinematically-pleasing, and in some ways useful, film.

Millions of Vietnamese were killed and wounded over the course of what the Vietnamese call the "American War" in Southeast Asia. About two million of those dead were Vietnamese civilians. They were blown to pieces by artillery, blasted by bombs, and massacred in hamlets and villages like My Lai, Son Thang, Thanh Phong, and Le Bac, in huge swaths of the Mekong Delta, and in little unnamed enclaves like one in Quang Nam Province. Matterhorn touches on none of this. Marlantes focuses tightly on a small unit of Americans in a remote location surrounded by armed enemy troops -- an episode that, while pitch perfect in depiction, represents only a sliver of a fraction of the conflict that was the Vietnam War.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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